Second Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Jan. 19, 2020

Lessons:

Isaiah 49:1-7

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

John 1:29-42

Psalm 40:1-12

If you have ever taken an acting class – maybe in high school, maybe in university, maybe somewhere else – then you will likely have done the exercise of selecting a short line of text and seeing how many different ways that you can say it. The line might be something that your teacher made up or it might be a famous line from a famous play. For the sake of exploration, let’s say that the line in question is what might be the most famous line ever spoken on the stage.

To be or not to be. That is the question.

How many ways could we say these words that Shakespeare gives to Hamlet?

Well, maybe we could lean hard into To be and then go soft on the rest of the line:

TO BE

(or not to be). That is the question.

Maybe we could borrow the technique of the late German actor, Bruno Ganz, who according to lore said:

To be

and then paused and paused and paused, waiting, legend has it, for more than two minutes of silence before concluding…

or not to be. That is the question.

Or maybe the first sentence with its contrasting choices isn’t as important as what comes next. How about:

(To be or not to be.)

THAT is the question.

We could keep on going as long as we wanted, as long as our imaginations lasted.

Scripture, like Shakespeare, doesn’t contain a lot of stage directions or other descriptions. Most of the time, folks in the Bible just say stuff. Their words are generally not followed by, “…she said, angrily” or “…he told them, with tears in his eyes and shaking hands.” The text does not volunteer whether their eyebrows are raised, whether they are speaking through gritted teeth, Clint Eastwood style, whether they are slurring their words, whether they are giggling as they talk.

And so here is my question for this morning. We are in the Gospel of John, right near its beginning. Jesus has just been baptised. And then the very first words that Jesus speaks go like this:

What are you looking for?

How shall we read Jesus’ words?

Let’s try out a few possibilities.

What are you looking for?

So, this is a Jesus who is aggressive, accusatory, and maybe wary. This is a Jesus who sees you glancing his way on the street and says, “What do you think you’re looking at?”

Now, stay with me here. Because we are so accustomed to Serene Jesus that we may want to reflexively rule out the possibility of Cranky Jesus. But I want to suggest that this is a thoroughly plausible reading of these words.

Because John the Baptist has just seen Jesus and announced to Andrew and his friend:

There goes the Lamb of God.

And what do we know about lambs? Well, we know that, as the old expression has it, they are led with some regularity to the slaughter. This is particularly true in Jesus’ time, where the sacrifice of animals is woven into the life of the temple. John is saying a lot of things when he announces that Jesus is the Lamb of God – there is a theological complexity to this statement that could and has filled up a few books. But one of the most basic things that it means is:

There is the one who is going to die in the service of the Lord.

Before Jesus predicts his own death – and as we know, Jesus predicts his dying early and often – John the Baptist predicts it.

And so we can understand why Jesus might speak with hostility, why he might say to Andrew and his friend:

What are you looking for?

Are you two here to watch me die? Are you like the people who slow down going past the car accident, equal parts horrified and titillated, both fearing and hoping that you will see blood on the asphalt?

Are you staring because I am a dead man walking?

What are you looking for?

Let’s try another possibility:

What are you looking for?

This is Jesus as the guru with the big beard on the mountaintop, this is Jesus as Yoda. Jesus is asking a question to which he already knows the answer. The purpose of the question is not for Jesus to learn anything, not for Jesus to find anything out. The purpose of the question is for the one being questioned to learn, for the seeker to learn. For you to learn.

This is maybe the Jesus with whom we are most familiar. And I can understand why: in a lot of ways, this is a reassuring Jesus: the Messiah who is in control, who is stable and powerful, who has something like superpowers.

Jesus asking the question in this way is like a guide on a journey. He knows the path on which we walk backwards and forwards, he cannot get lost. While he is on the journey with us, he shares in none of our discovery and none of our uncertainty. When we wander off of the way and into the briars or the poison ivy, he does not follow us. He stays on the path and asks his question: What are you looking for?

When Jesus ask his question, he is really saying: I know what you are looking for. Do you know what you are looking for?

Maybe there is a trace of a smile on his face as he speaks.

One more.

What are you looking for?

So, this is Jesus as genuinely curious. Not angry and challenging but not all-knowing either. This is the Son of God, shortly after his baptism, the day after the dove has descended and the voice of the one whom he calls Father has said:

This is my Son, the Beloved. In whom I delight.

This is Jesus wandering around in stunned wonder, standing in the wake of this profound mystical experience and not sure what is supposed to happen next. In the Synoptic Gospels (so, Matthew, Mark, and Luke) this is the moment when the Spirit drives or maybe leads Jesus out into the wilderness. Here in the Fourth Gospel, this is the moment when Jesus notices that two people have left John’s side and begun to follow him.

Picture him, blinking in the sunlight, his clothes maybe not entirely dry from that day before, the silt of the Jordan still in his hair. He looks at Andrew and his friend and says:

What are you looking for?

This is Jesus who is, himself, not sure what he is looking for. This is the Jesus who shares with us in our search. We are lost and hoping to be found. And so is Jesus.

Which reading is right? Which one is true? Is it one of these three or still another?­ How does Jesus sound when he looks at you and he says:

What are you looking for?

First Sunday after the Epiphany by the Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

Jan. 12, 2020

Lessons:

Isaiah 42:1-9

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-17

Psalm 29

I was baptized when I was 4 or 5 and dressed in a scratchy dress and tight shoes. I stood at the front of an Episcopal congregation along with my younger brother and sister. The priest went to baptize us and screwed up my name….he transposed my middle name with my sister’s. This might have been a quickly forgotten incident had I not, some time later, decided to share this funny story with a friend at a sleepover. When I finished talking she looked at my with concern and said “You know what that means don’t you?” “No” I replied, “What?”. “It means you are not going to be able to get into heaven, because God is not going to know your name.”

I was also ‘baptized’ in seminary. I use air quotes around the word baptism because this was not my baptism, that happened when I was little. But water and oil were poured on me one June day in the courtyard of our CDSP in Berkeley. It was part of what is affectionately known as the ‘magic hands’ class in seminary, where we learn the sacramental acts we called to perform as ordained people. My friend, David, was assigned the rite of baptism and he asked me if I would be willing to be baptized by him. I immediately said yes, he is one of my dearest friends.

One of the gifts of this class was the freedom our instructor gave to just try things out…to go for it, as it were. So my friend David decided to baptize me with, um, generous abandon. As I knelt down in front of him he took huge bowlfuls of water and dumped them over my head three times, so much water I was gasping for breath a little and completely soaked through. Then took a bottle of olive oil and began pouring it over my head. I smelled like a caesar salad and it took about 3 days of washing my hair with dish soap to get all the oil out.

Baptism is one of what are called the two ‘great sacraments’ in the church, the other being the Eucharist. These are considered the primary sacraments because they were modeled by Christ in the scriptures and given to the Church. When we are participating in baptism and communion we are participating in the very acts which Jesus himself initiated over 2,000 years ago.

Which all sounds pretty straightforward, Jesus did it and now we do too, but the history of the sacrament of baptism is a complicated one indeed. Ritual immersion was a part of the Judaism that Jesus was raised in, as an act of purification that could be participated whenever necessary. John the Baptizer (and the Jewish sect called the Essenes, of which he may have been a part) took this practice but shifted it and made it less about a ritual purification and about metanoia, repentance.

Amongst early followers of Christ, in the first couple of centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus, baptism continued to be a sacrament marking the entrance of one into the faith. But the theology of baptism remained fraught. In the 4th century deathbed baptism was a fairly common practice as people were afraid that they might sin again after the washing away of their sins they received in baptism. In fact, Constantine himself was baptized this way. And as families began to have their children baptized, the theology of original sin, that all humans are born sinners, was clearly articulated by Augustine as a rationale for the practice of infant baptizing.

During the Reformation even more visions and theologies of baptism began to flourish. Many reacted against the practice of infant baptism by arguiung that there is little scriptural warrant for the practice and instead a believer’s baptism, requiring someone to be of an age where they can articulate their beliefs and understand the sacrament they are participating in, became the norm in some denominations.

Baptism is a big thing. And all the controversy, all the passion around how and why and when one should be baptized is all because it is important …it is transformative…it is a holy and sacred act.

And this is clear in today’s Gospel. There is a lot going on in these few short verses from Matthew that tell us what is happening is very important. This is the first time we hear Jesus speak in the Gospel of Matthew. This is Jesus’ first act before beginning his ministry. This scene of Jesus being baptized is one of only two in the Gospel of Matthew in which the heavens open and God’s voice is heard (the other being the Transfiguration which occurs right before he turns toward Jerusalem and certain death). And this incarnated, physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit, described as being ‘like a dove’ is unique and appears in all four of the Gospels only during Jesus’ baptism.

Something big is going on here, bigger than the forgiveness of sins because what would Jesus need forgiving of anyway? And also, given that all these things are happening in this scene (the dove, the voice, the heavens opening up), it seems to me that the text is trying to tell us that something more is happening than just forgiveness.

When we consider this scene of Jesus’ baptism, perhaps we might look at it as offering us a vision of a new way of looking at baptism beyond a simple washing away of sin; in the story of me being baptized with the wrong name, what my childhood friend articulated is a theological view of baptism that is pretty common I think: that baptism is a gateway to salvation, that through baptism we become beloved of God.

But today’s Gospel story points to something else I think. I think it suggests that rather than being primarily about forgiveness, baptism is primarily about relationship. It is about our relationship with God and our relationship with the Church and our relationship with each other. This scene in Matthew seems organized around the concept of relationship; this is the ONLY time in the Gospels that all three members of the Trinity are present together. God is naming and claiming Jesus in baptism through the Holy Spirit and God is naming and claiming us baptism too.

And God’s claim on us flows from an abundant, powerful and overflowing love that surrounds us and cascades over us in the way the way the water hit my head and made me catch my breath that afternoon in seminary when David poured bowlfuls of water over my head in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I know this was not a ‘proper’ baptism, David was not ordained and I had already been baptized, but the way that water shook me and the feel of the oil cascading down my face were absolutely a sign of God’s abundant love. As one commentator suggested, God does not forgive us to make us beloved, we are already beloved so God forgives us. In baptism God claims us as God’s own.

In a few minutes we will renew our baptismal vows. For those of us who have been baptized, it is a chance to once again remember what it means to be claimed God’s Beloved in the waters of Baptism. For those who have not been baptized, it is a window into what this baptism thing is all about.

And one of the things I appreciate about our Baptismal vows is that they are framed as a covenant. And that language is intentional. A covenant is about relationship. In our baptism God welcomes us as God’s beloved child and we respond by sharing meals and prayers, by resisting evil, by proclaiming the Good News we have found in Christ, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, and by recognizing the dignity of every human being and working for justice and peace in a world that desperately needs it.

God spoke to Jesus that day when he was baptized in the River Jordan and named Jesus Beloved in front of all who were gathered there.

Just as God spoke to Jesus through the sacrament of baptism, so God speaks to us through the sacraments we share here in this place.

God speaks to us through wine.

God speaks to us through bread.

God speaks to us through oil.

God speaks to us through water.

 

God speaks to us and says “You are my child, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

The Second Sunday after Christmas by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Jan. 5, 2020

Lessons:

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Psalm 84

A remarkable number of Christmas carols and Christmas songs and Christmas hymns have a wistful, melancholic, plain-old sad side to them.

In the Bleak Midwinter and The Little Drummer Boy are both sung in the voice of one who knows poverty: What can I give him, poor as I am? and I am a poor boy, too – pa rum pum pum-pum.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas speaks of finitude and randomness: Through the years we all will be together…

…if the fates allow…

and of troubles which, achingly, beautifully, the singer hopes and longs will now be miles away.

And even We Need a Little Christmas from the musical Mame:

We need a little Christmas, right this very minute!

Words that are almost impossible to sing without putting on your Angela Lansbury voice, a number as toe-tapping and danceable a Christmas song there is, tells us:

I’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older

I bet that we could think of still more examples.

What’s going on? Why are so many pages of the Christmas song book stained with tears?

Some of it probably has to do with the time of the year. These short days are taxing and it is easy to feel out of gas. Some of it probably flows out of the dissonance that shows up when, in a season when you are kind of expected or even required to be happy, you realise that you are not: if Christmas sits for you in the shadow of loss or grief or loneliness and the world around you appears to be full-time joy and friendship and merriment and Christmas cards filled with success and success and winning and winning, that’s hard. And some of it is probably due to just having time off: if you, like me, are the sort of person whose preferred drug is not so much booze as it is busyness, getting a break from work or projects or school simply allows you the time to be sad.

And some of it has to do with Christmas itself – not the contemporary holiday, but the ancient story of the birth of Jesus. Sorrow is woven right into this tale, it is right there beside the joy. Here is a family living in poverty – remember in the Gospel of Luke that, when the holy family goes to the temple to make a sacrifice to the Lord in Jesus’ name, the family buys a pair of turtledoves and two pigeons, the cheapest possible animals available, a marker that tells you that their wallets are close to empty. Here is a family living with the indignity and fear of occupation – Mary must give birth on the road because that Empire commands them to travel. And here is a family who, shortly after Jesus’ birth, become refugees, who flee to Egypt, because Empire’s violence is coming for them.

Those of you who have been hanging around church for a while will know that, three days after the Feast of Christmas, there comes another Feast. This is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day that keeps the memory all of the children under the age of two whom King Herod orders to be murdered in the hopes that Jesus will be among them.

The story of those murders, the story of what, beginning in the twentieth century, we would call a crime against humanity, is one that we probably ought to tell not just on December 28th but on this Sunday as well. Except, because of a curious choice made by the folks who framed the lectionary (i.e., the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next), we just skip past it. Here is Matthew Chapter 2, Verses 13-15, in which Joseph is warned in a dream and flees with his family to Egypt. And then we pop ahead to Verse 19, which begins, “When Herod died,” and it is safe for the family to come home.

And they lived happily ever after! This is almost a Disney story.

Except missing from what we just read together are verses 16 through 18:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

The Magi, in art and in nativity sets, are often these jovial, kind, harmless figures, gift-wrapped boxes in their hands. But what this story in its fullness tells us is that they are also tragic figures, sorrow-filled figures. They choose to trust Herod, choose to trust the King, someone who ought to be trustworthy, with the amazing good news that the Messiah has been born. And in so doing, they unwittingly invite Herod’s violence into Jesus’ life and Joseph and Mary’s lives and into the lives of who knows how many innocent and unnamed children.

Children who, now, will never get to grow up.

So. I have some distressing news to share with you. Over the last number of weeks, you may have received warning notice from Grace letting you know that there is a scammer or, maybe, multiple scammers hopping onto email pretending to be Jeanne or me or a parishioner here at Grace. And I’m really sorry to let you know that no fewer than two parishioners have been defrauded of money by this scam. One parishioner was defrauded of about $300. More recently, a second parishioner was defrauded of $1300.

Now, I want to be clear. I have just transitioned from the murder of children to the stealing of money, and I want to emphasise that the two are not the moral equivalent of one another. Of course they are not. What I am arguing, I guess, is that thefts such as these are microcosms, small versions, of other, bigger kinds of violence. Violence such as Herod inflicts, violence such as we hear about today in synagogues and churches.

Because in both cases, the violence is against trust, against community. We come to church or synagogue or other places of worship because we trust that we are going to find healing, belonging, and meaning in these places, we trust that we are going to find goodness and love in them, we trust that we are going to find safety in them, we trust that we are going to find God in them. These are places, we reckon, where we are home, where we are allowed to let down our guards.

And when someone takes advantage of that trust and pretends to be a member of the community asking for help or, far worse, brings a gun or a knife a machete into the community, it feels like an especially big violation. And it demands the question: how shall we respond?

Is church too going to be place where we must be on guard at all times?

For some of our fellow people of faith, the answer is “yes.” As you likely know, a recent shooting at a church in Texas was stopped and who knows how many murders prevented because several church goers were armed and one of them was able to shoot and kill the perpetrator. This is the famous “good guy with a gun,” except in real life. Is the takeaway that we at Grace should do the same, that acolytes and choir members ought to have pistols under their robes and keep a machine gun stowed in the pulpit? Microcosmically, do the recent scams mean that the trust that is so much part of this good place is something that we ought to regard with scepticism and suspicion?

Maybe a sensible answer, a street-smart answer, would be “yes.” But that’s not the answer that I want to give. And if Jesus is telling the truth when, in Gethsemane he tells his disciple to put away the sword, when he pushes back when that the disciples want to engage in violence, when, even on the cross, he chooses to forgive, then I don’t think that it is the answer that Jesus wants us to give either.

Maybe it is naïve or foolish or reckless. But I believe that Jesus, the child laying in the manger even as the soldiers draw near, wants us to keep on trusting in goodness and love, keep on hoping for goodness and love, keep on working for goodness and love.

Because I think Jesus’ trust, Jesus’ trust in humanity in spite of everything, is built right into Christmas. Theologians will sometimes say of the incarnation, of the Kingdom, of the Gospel, that these things have an already and a not yet quality. The kingdom is already here, Jesus is already among us. The church is already the body of Christ. And yet silly power struggles and hurt feelings remain. And scams remain. And the worst kind of violence remains.

And in a way, the not yet makes the already even more amazing, Here is all of this brokenness. And here is Jesus, here is God, showing up anyway. That is the best news.

Already and not yet is the paradox built into his paradoxical time of year, a time of year in which we sing paradoxical songs: songs of joy and glad tidings and loneliness and grief. Songs of hope, that Jesus is here among all of the hurt and that Jesus is coming and that Jesus will change everything. That is hope that I need, for which I long.

For we’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older

We need a little Christmas. Now.

 

The First Sunday after Christmas Day by The Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

December 29, 2019a

Lessons:

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

John 1:1-18

Psalm 147

When our first child, Gwen, had just turned 4, I asked her to take her plate to the sink after dinner. We have this built in nook in our kitchen with a bench, and she stood up on the upholstered green cushion with her plate in her hand. As she reached the edge of the bench she dropped her plate and it broke on the floor and somehow, I did not see it happen, she fell on top of her broken plate and sliced open her hand. She was screaming and there was blood everywhere and we wrapped her hand up in a towel and scooped her younger brother up and rushed to Providence emergency room. It was January and all these folks were sick with the flu in the waiting room and Seth kept picking up things off the floor and sticking them in his mouth. We waited for hours and, when we finally saw a team, they all ran around anxiously when they saw how deep the cut was and scheduled her for surgery first thing in the morning. The plate had gone through through the fleshy part of her hand almost to the bone.

When our youngest, Tess, was about 14 months old she grabbed her sister’s sandwich, peanut butter and jelly, and started smearing it all over her face. It was dinner time and I think the pasta was boiling over or something so I ran to the stove and when I turned around again there were red welts starting to raise up on her face and chest where the peanut butter had touched her skin. I called 911 and they told me to give her some benadryl and I did and the angry skin calmed down and she seemed to be breathing ok. We took her to the doctor the next day and she explained, if this happened again and she had trouble breathing or her lips and tongue swelled, how we should inject the epi-pen into the fleshy part of her thigh. 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…..And the Word became flesh and lived among us

 

What an extraordinary claim.

What a crazy thing to do.

These bodies of ours, our flesh, are wondrously complex and incomparably beautiful. Yet the are also so vulnerable, so easily broken open by the sharp edge of a broken dish, so quickly sent into a cascading and life-threatening spiral by a simple legume.

We don’t have sharp spines or bony plates to protect our soft parts. We are almost entirely composed of soft parts. And yet….

God took part of God’s own self, the Word, the complete and ultimate essence of God, God’s self and God’s child both at the same time (which is also an extraordinary claim, but that is for another sermon), and clothed it in this beautiful and paper thin body of blood and bone and flesh and sent him, Jesus, to us.

Which is, I will say again, pretty crazy. I mean, this is God right? Couldn’t God have, liked, amped up the design or the defenses a bit for Jesus? Couldn’t Jesus have had like stronger skin or plates like a dinosaur or super strength or some sort of superpower to keep God safe?

And the Word became flesh and lived among us….

The Greek is literally translated “And the Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us….” Part of that choice of language is very specific and intentional by the Gospel writer. It hearkens back to the stories of Exodus and to God who takes up residence in the tabernacle, a tent, and moves with the people as they travel in the wilderness in search of a home. The Gospel writer is making a deliberate connection between God in Christ and the God of the Hebrew scriptures.

The word for this tent, in Hebrew, is shekinah. In Exodus God resides in time and space in a physical structure. The Gospel takes this idea, this image, and extends and transforms it. Human flesh becomes the tent, the tabernacle; our bodies are the holy place of God. Our bodies become the shekinah.

We have been taught most of our lives that our bodies are bad, or at least not good enough. We have been taught that our bodies are the place of sin and far from God. That message seems almost universal. It is a hard one to resist. (Our bodies are vulnerable and creaturely and react in pain and desire and that is scary because our bodies are a reminder that we, too, are creatures. Our bodies are a reminder that we are vulnerable. Our bodies are a reminder that we are not in control. Our bodies are )

This prologue to the Gospel of John is a clear call to resist that message, whether we hear it at the gym or in a magazine or in the pulpit. Because our bodies are perfect, our bodies are sacred, our bodies are holy.

So we are called to not only resist this message that our bodies are somehow less, but to embrace our body in all its messiness and crankiness and creaturliness and fleshiness. We can know God in our bodies in a way that is different than in our minds. Trust those goosebumps and sudden tears and things that take your breath away….they often point to an encounter with the holy. As John O’ Donohue writes: Your mind can deceive you and put all kinds of barriers between you and your nature; but your body does not lie.

 

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known, the Gospel writer tells us.

And God in Jesus got a arms and legs and a belly for a tent and camped with us for a while and helped us see, the scripture tells us, the face of God which can never be gazed upon but that was, for a time at least – a face with beautiful brown skin with the most kind eyes you have ever seen.

So this nativity story of John with its nine short words “And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” is about as scandalous a theological claim as exists in the Bible.

And about as glorious a theological claim as exists in the Bible.

 

God created these bodies and God became a body.

 

What an act of love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Eve by the Reverend Martin Elfert

Eve.jpg

Isaiah 62:6-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:1-20
Psalm 97

Our first child came on a hot day in July. He was in a hurry to get into the world, and all of our plans for what his birth would look like disappeared into the rush of the afternoon.

Our second child came in December in the night. She too came fast. My wife, Phoebe, will say sometimes that she went to sleep, woke up and had baby, and then went back to sleep. When we got up in the morning we looked around in our bed a said: Oh. A child.

Our youngest arrived in October, and he wanted to come fast as well. But as sometimes happens, his head was turned up, up like a cyclist pushing hard into the wind and towards the finish line. And so his coming into this life was marked by the siren and the lights of an ambulance.

We, all of us, have a story of how we were born. Some of these stories are part of family lore, some of them are written into books, and some of them are all but forgotten except for a mark on a ledger or a dusty photograph or an uncertain tale told by an uncertain relative. All of these stories are extraordinary, awesome in the old-school sense of that word. And all of them are everyday and ordinary. There is nothing more ordinary than being born. It is how 100% of us got here, much as 100% will leave this life through the awesome and ordinary thing that is death.

There are a number of things that I remember in particular about our children’s births.

I remember the intensity of it – intense, rather than painful, being the word that Phoebe reaches for to describe the physical reality of childbirth. It certainly was intense for me. So much of the time, my attention is going seven different directions. At our children’s births, my focus was total.

I remember the carnality of it, the indisputable proof that, at least during our time on this earth, we are inseparable from our bodies. That, as the wonderful feminist theologian Ellen Clark-King puts it, we are not people who have bodies; we are people who are bodies. When birth begins, there is choosing to go do something else.

I remember the divinity of it, the sense, the knowledge, the assurance, that God was there in the room with us, that if we had torn up the floorboards, we could have touched God’s face.

I remember the awe and wonder of it. The awe and wonder, especially, of witnessing my spouse give birth. I understood in a deeper way then kind of power Phoebe held within her.

I remember the finitude of it. (I’m not sure if that is exactly the right word, but it’s the best that I can do.) To be in the room when birth happens is, inescapably, to encounter death. It is to remember that we are but dust and to dust we shall return.

And I remember the communion of it. All of the helpers gathered ‘round. The midwives, Phoebe’s Mum, and later on our younger children welcoming their new siblings. At our youngest child’s birth, there were the firefighters and the paramedics and later the doctors and nurses. One of the nurses, in a detail that would have been right at home in a period drama, had a glorious Irish brogue.

Birth.

The Gospel tells us that birth is how God chooses to enter into the world. That God, too, has a story of being born.

The wonderful writer Sarah Bessey, whose reflections served as the fire starter for this sermon, has suggested that we would think of the birth of Jesus differently if the story of it were told by women. Creches are so clean and neat, oil paintings tend to feature a holy family that is suspiciously well rested. If women – or at least, men who had been present at births – told this story, the creches would be a whole lot messier. And the oil paintings would feature a whole lot more people, all of the helpers whom we encountered, all of the people participating in the intensity, the carnality, the divinity of birth.

And if the story were told not just by women but by women who knew birth in Mary and Joseph’s time, the creche and the oil paintings would put us in a different location. Today, we think of a barn or a stable as a discrete building, physically separated from the farmhouse. But all those years ago, people lived with their animals, both to keep the animals safe and because the animals warmed the house up. So, when the story says that Jesus is laid in a manger – in other words a trough – we might imagine that manger in less of a contemporary barn and more of an ancient living room, with the bustle of the kitchen and family life close at hand.

What does it mean that God is born in this way? What does it mean that God is born in this place?

Here are two possible answers. (This is not an exhaustive list. It is but two of the possibilities that I am thinking of tonight.)

First, it means that birth is holy. While the birth of the Messiah absolutely says something specific about Jesus, it also says something about being born in general. The incarnation declares in flesh what God declares in words in the Book of Genesis, that being born and having a body and walking the earth is good. It is very good.

I think it’s Hannah Arendt who says that we call ourselves mortals, and that we’re right to do so – we are, all of us, people who will die. But Arendt adds that we sometimes might do well to change things up and call ourselves natals: people who have been born. As a natal, know that you have come into this world in the same way as God. And know that being a natal means that you are beloved of God, precious beyond measuring to God.

The second thing that the incarnation tells us is that God participates absolutely in being alive. God is someone who has been born, with all of the radical vulnerability of that, all of the willingness to trust human beings as God came crying into this world. It means that God grew and God stubbed God’s toe and God got the flu and God has acne God wondered whether God’s classmate liked God as much as God liked them and, in the end, like all natals, that God proved to be a mortal, and died.

I’ve shared with you before the story that Richard Rohr tells of meeting a hermit on a path through the woods. The hermit, in some excitement, stops Rohr and says:

Richard! You get to preach and I don’t. So tell people.

Tell people.

God isn’t somewhere else.

The birth of Jesus, the incarnation, declares that God is not somewhere else. God is here, in our deepest joys and our deepest griefs.

Just like Jesus, all of us have a story of how we were born, of how we became natals, of how we came to walk this earth. Our story and Jesus’ story alike tell us that we are beloved children of God. Our story and Jesus’ story alike tell us that Jesus’ ancient name contains everything that we need to know. Jesus is Emmanuel, a word that is a promise, the promise that God with us.

The Third Sunday after Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

 

December 15, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 35:1-10

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

 Canticle 15 

 

In 1989 I obtained my driver’s license. And then then partway through the next year, I became a full-time bicycle commuter.

These two changes – the driver’s license and the vastly expanded understanding of where all a bike might take me; suddenly my bike was suddenly taking me everywhere – brought with them two things into my life. The first was a profound freedom. Up until then I had been kind of limited, depending on the bus or my feet or the kindness of my parents and their car to get around. Now, I could more or less go where I wanted when I wanted.

The second thing was a new kind of anger. It is an anger that you may know about, an anger that in its extremer form actually has a name: Road rage. There is something uniquely aggravating about getting around on the modern system of streets. I don’t know if that is because it is dangerous – the bent metal of two cars meeting or, worse yet, a car and a bike meeting can send you to the hospital right now or to the morgue right now, and maybe that danger touches the reptilian parts of our brains, the fight or flight parts of our brains. Or maybe there is just something about travelling on asphalt that is plain-old frustrating. I’m curious if our ancestors getting around in buggies pulled by horses had this kind of rage. I’m guessing – and maybe I’m mistaken – that they did not, that there were rarely people hopping off of one horse to kick someone on another horse.

Regardless of the reason, I am glad that smartphones did not exist back then and the camcorders were uncommon, glad that (as far as I know) there are no videos of me on the streets of Vancouver with spit and profanity and fury flying out of my mouth. I blew my stack with some regularity. And looking back on Younger Me, I guess that some of my anger was reasonable: here were people taking stop signs as suggestions and merging across lanes and opening doors without any idea that the shoulder check had ever been invented.

Justified or not, reasonable or not, I rarely achieve that level of anger on the road today. Some of that has to do with aging, I’m sure – the years have rounded off my edges, much as the ocean rounds off the edges of broken glass. But some of it is also a choice.

Be patient, says James. Be patient for the coming of the Lord.

Be patient like the farmer is patient with the earth.

Be patient and do not grumble, lest you be judged.

The Lord is coming soon.

I don’t know if how we behave in traffic is a trivial example, a silly example; there are so many things to get angry about that matter way more than how and where someone merges on the highway. I do know that it’s a real example, an everyday example. And maybe how we meet others on the road is a kind of sacrament – a kind of outward and visible sign – of how we meet our neighbours in general.

I wonder if part of what James means by this entreaty to patience is that grumbling, that rage does nothing to make the Kingdom get here any sooner. And that sometimes it might even slow it down.

Because choosing to be patient – well, it doesn’t mean being morally lazy, acting as though nothing is right and nothing is wrong. Rather, I want to suggest that patience, holy patience, means allowing that your neighbour is as complex as you, as contradictory as you, as well-intended as you, as fallible and broken as you, as loved by God as you.

These days, I still do speak to people who run stop signs or don’t shoulder check. But I speak to them way differently than I did in 1990. Because what I noticed over the years is that when folks swore at me or yelled at me or sent sarcasm or accusation my way, I become all but completely unable to listen to what they had to say. I get closed off like a turtle, all of my energy reflexively going into defending myself.

These days I will say something like, Shoulder check, please! Or That’s a stop sign. I don’t know my patience changes anyone’s behaviour – there is no scientist to interview these folks and to measure their reactions. I do know, if absolutely nothing else, this way of being in the world changes me. To encounter my neighbour with patience – well, my blood pressure is lower, I am happier, I am more generous.

I trust that this practice matters. And I wonder what it would be like if I and we could find a way of practicing this kind of patience not just on the roads but more broadly. What if we met folks who lived differently or voted differently with holy patience? Again, not shrugging at our excusing injustice, but encountering injustice with the assumption that even those who perpetuate it are as complex as we are, as beloved of God as we are? That might change us. That might change everything.

To move around a major city such as Portland, whether it be by car or by bicycle or by foot or by something else, is to have abundant opportunities to lose your temper. There are so many people out there making choices that you just would not make: folks regarding stop signs as suggestions; folks merging or opening doors without any sense that the shoulder check has ever been invented; folks driving in the highway’s leftmost lane who are moving so epically slowly that they are very nearly going backwards; and of course folks so absorbed by their phones that they have no idea that the light changed several weeks ago.

I’ve been a bicycle commuter for very nearly thirty years, going back to my days at the University of British Columbia. And I’ve done my fair share of temper losing, my fair share of getting red in the face of and shouting words that you aren’t allowed to say in church at my fellow commuters.

And looking back on Younger Me, I guess I can understand why he blew his stack as often and as enthusiastically as he did. To be on a bike in traffic – remember that in the early nineties bike lanes essentially did not exist – is to be profoundly vulnerable, vulnerable not an emotional or psychic sense but in an “I might go to the hospital or to the morgue” kind of sense. And when someone in a truck or a car makes a choice that puts you in danger, that old cocktail of adrenaline and fear and anger is not far away. Yelling is maybe reasonable.

But reasonable or not, understandable or not, I don’t yell much on my bike anymore. It isn’t just that I am embarrassed by some of the stuff that I shouted on the streets of Vancouver all the years ago (although I am embarrassed – I hope that there are no video records of me with bulging eyes and pointing figures and spit flying out of my mouth) but more than I came to believe that my yelling wasn’t helping anyone to become a better driver. And it certainly wasn’t helping me.

Now, let me pause here and say that I am in no way advocating for shrugging in the face of injustice. Certain things are wrong and we have a duty as moral people and as disciples to say as much. Rather, I mean something more like this: even as we name what is wrong or unfair or unjust, even as we act in response, is there a way we can do so while also remembering and honoring the dignity and humanity of the one with whom we speak? Is there a way that we can remember that they are contradictory and complex, just like us, that they sometimes make bad decisions, just like us, that most of the time they are trying their best, just like us.

Imagine what politics in this country would be like if we chose to act that way. Rather than assuming that our neighbour is being awful on purpose, destructive on purpose, selfish on purpose.

These days I still do sometimes talk to other folks on the road. But I talk to them really differently than I did in 1990. If someone makes a merge without shoulder checking – and that, as you likely know, is a scary experience on a bike – I’ve gotten to the point where I am able to say, “Could you please shoulder check?”

Please welcome Paul & Debbie Walter

Paul & Debbie Walter

 

On Sunday, November 24th, we welcomed ten new members into the Grace Memorial  community. For the next several weeks, we’ll be learning more about all of them. This week: Paul and Debbie Walter!

Paul grew up in Japan, and Debbie grew up in California along the Central Caast. They  have been married for 44 years and have two adult children, Eric and Michelle, both of whom are married. Eric teaches high school in Los Angeles and loves it. Michelle is a librarian who works in special education at a small school down the Valley. She and her husband have two delightful teenage kids, so Paul and Debbie are grandparents too!

Paul and Debbie have enjoyed traveling but are essentially introverts who enjoy quietness, reading, a cup of tea or coffee, and no TV.

Paul sees himself as, “something like a married monk — whatever that is.”

Paul and Debbie are both retired. They have been on a forty-year ecclesiastical pilgrimage, from Baptist, to Episcopalian, to Lutheran, to Roman Catholic, and now back to Episcopalian.

They write, “We are finding Grace to be a welcome balance between high and low church. There is a refreshing blend of both the vertical and the horizontal dimensions. The focus on the beautiful music, liturgy, and church interior, punctuated by moments of corporate silence runs so counter to all that swirls around us outside the church doors, but rather than being stuffy, there is warmth between our brothers and sisters in Christ and a respectful handling of the Word of God. Thanks to everyone for making us feel welcome and for the role each on you plays in making Grace a beacon of light in a dark world.”